Saturday, August 16, 2008

Freedom of speech dies when no one is willing to defend it

Just heard about "the latest" surrender of freedom without so much as a whimper . . . much less a fight.

Forget "the land of the free and the home of the brave." Forget the attitude and commitment attributed to Voltaire: "I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it." Apparently, Americans are now more inclined, simply, to turn tail and walk away.

And so our vaunted right to free speech is, I'm afraid, quickly disappearing. . . . And I think few Americans want to hear about it.
The Jewel of Medina, a debut novel by journalist Sherry Jones, 46, was due to be published [August 12] and an eight-city publicity tour had been scheduled. . . .

[However,] Jones said that she was shocked to learn in May, that publication would be postponed indefinitely.

Want to guess why it was postponed?

Yep. It touches on Mohammed.
The novel traces the life of A'isha from her engagement to Mohammed, when she was six, until the prophet's death. . . .

"I have deliberately and consciously written respectfully about Islam and Mohammed ... I envisioned that my book would be a bridge-builder," said Jones.

[But] Random House deputy publisher Thomas Perry said in a statement the company received "cautionary advice not only that the publication of this book might be offensive to some in the Muslim community, [and] also that it could incite acts of violence by a small, radical segment."

He added: "In this instance we decided, after much deliberation, to postpone publication for the safety of the author, employees of Random House, booksellers and anyone else who would be involved in distribution and sale of the novel."

Jones, who has just completed a sequel to the novel examining her heroine's later life, is free to sell her book to other publishers, Perry said.

Random House is so nice, isn't it?

But then I find some additional articles.

The book is by no means "high literature" (fancy that!). But it appears well-structured. (You can read the prologue here.)

Some claim it is a trashy bodice-ripper. I do not know. I saw no "bodice-ripping" tendencies in the prologue. It is written in the style of most modern fiction: lots of real or implicit conflict and tension. Rather florid descriptions. But, if anything, Muhammad is portrayed as an astonishingly sensitive and considerate man--far more saintly and ready to offer grace and forgiveness than one might expect of a powerful man married to a wayward child bride.

But the real story, it seems to me, is all about the publishing process . . . and how the book came to be "postponed" in the first place.

It seems there was a certain professor from the University of Texas, a Denise Spellberg, associate professor of Islamic history, who had something to do with what happened. As Asra Q. Nomani wrote in the Wall Street Journal:
In April, looking for endorsements, Random House sent galleys to writers and scholars, including Denise Spellberg. . . . Ms. Jones put her on the list because she read Ms. Spellberg's book, Politics, Gender, and the Islamic Past: The Legacy of 'A'isha Bint Abi Bakr.

But Ms. Spellberg wasn't a fan of Ms. Jones's book. On April 30, Shahed Amanullah, a guest lecturer in Ms. Spellberg's classes and the editor of a popular Muslim Web site, got a frantic call from her. "She was upset," Mr. Amanullah recalls. He says Ms. Spellberg told him the novel "made fun of Muslims and their history," and asked him to warn Muslims.

In an interview, Ms. Spellberg told me the novel is a "very ugly, stupid piece of work." The novel, for example, includes a scene on the night when Muhammad consummated his marriage with Aisha: "the pain of consummation soon melted away. Muhammad was so gentle. I hardly felt the scorpion's sting. To be in his arms, skin to skin, was the bliss I had longed for all my life."

Says Ms. Spellberg: "I walked through a metal detector to see 'Last Temptation of Christ,'" the controversial 1980s film adaptation of a novel that depicted a relationship between Jesus and Mary Magdalene. "I don't have a problem with historical fiction. I do have a problem with the deliberate misinterpretation of history. You can't play with a sacred history and turn it into soft core pornography." . . .

Sorry. I have to stop the narrative, here, for a moment.

Spellberg says she herself "walked through a metal detector" in order to ensure she took the opportunity to watch a "soft core porn" depiction of Christian sacred history, but she feels the need to warn Muslims of potential offense before they can judge a similar work [or, based on what little I know of either the movie or the book, a potentially less offensive work] on its own merits?

Sorry. Something seems rather hypocritical, here, to me.

But back to the narrative.

We're told Spellberg doesn't have a problem with historical fiction, but, somehow (perhaps following a conversion at or shortly after having viewed "The Last Temptation of Christ"?), she does have a problem with the "deliberate misinterpretation of history" in the form of "play[ing] with a sacred history and turn[ing] it into soft core pornography."

And so, according to Nomani, . . .
After he got the call from Ms. Spellberg, Mr. Amanullah dashed off an email to a listserv of Middle East and Islamic studies graduate students, acknowledging he didn't "know anything about it [the book]," but telling them, "Just got a frantic call from a professor who got an advance copy of the forthcoming novel, 'Jewel of Medina' -- she said she found it incredibly offensive." He added a write-up about the book from the Publishers Marketplace, an industry publication.

The next day, a blogger known as Shahid Pradhan posted Mr. Amanullah's email on a Web site for Shiite Muslims -- "Hussaini Youth" -- under a headline, "upcoming book, 'Jewel of Medina': A new attempt to slander the Prophet of Islam." Two hours and 28 minutes after that, another person by the name of Ali Hemani proposed a seven-point strategy to ensure "the writer withdraws this book from the stores and apologise all the muslims across the world."

Meanwhile back in New York City, Jane Garrett, an editor at Random House's Knopf imprint, dispatched an email on May 1 to Knopf executives, telling them she got a phone call the evening before from Ms. Spellberg (who happens to be under contract with Knopf to write "Thomas Jefferson's Qur'an.")

"She thinks there is a very real possibility of major danger for the building and staff and widespread violence," Ms. Garrett wrote.

Sorry. Feel the need to interrupt once more.

Let's see. Why would Spellberg think there is such a real possibility of major danger? Is this just a "feeling"? Or . . . could she herself have played an integral role in spreading the flames?
"Denise says it is 'a declaration of war . . . explosive stuff . . . a national security issue.' Thinks it will be far more controversial than the satanic verses and the Danish cartoons. Does not know if the author and Ballantine folks are clueless or calculating, but thinks the book should be withdrawn ASAP." ("The Jewel of Medina" was to be published by Random House's Ballantine Books.)

That day, the email spread like wildfire through Random House, which also received a letter from Ms. Spellberg and her attorney, saying she would sue the publisher if her name was associated with the novel. On May 2, a Ballantine editor told Ms. Jones's agent the company decided to possibly postpone publication of the book.

On a May 21 conference call, Random House executive Elizabeth McGuire told the author and her agent that the publishing house had decided to indefinitely postpone publication of the novel for "fear of a possible terrorist threat from extremist Muslims" and concern for "the safety and security of the Random House building and employees."

And now, with that as background, Spellberg writes in a subsequent Wall Street Journal letter, "I Didn't Kill 'The Jewel of Medina.'"

No. I'm sure not! [Sarcasm.]
There is a long history of anti-Islamic polemic that uses sex and violence to attack the Prophet and his faith. This novel follows in that oft-trodden path, one first pioneered in medieval Christian writings.

The novel provides no new reading of Aisha's life, but actually expands upon provocative themes regarding Muhammad's wives first found in an earlier novel by Salman Rushdie, "The Satanic Verses," which I teach. I do not espouse censorship of any kind, but I do value my right to critique those who abuse the past without regard for its richness or resonance in the present.

The combination of sex and violence sells novels. When combined with falsification of the Islamic past, it exploits Americans who know nothing about Aisha or her seventh-century world and counts on stirring up controversy to increase sales. If Ms. Nomani and readers of the Journal wish to allow literature to "move civilization forward," then they should read a novel that gets history right.

What's this about a "right to critique"?

I think "Artemis," in response to the post Clueless Dhimmitude and Denise Spellberg, on the Stop the ACLU blog, has it about right:
Production on a book takes up to or over a year. This book was going to press and would be released in two months.

Spellberg was not asked for a critique, or to give advice on whether to publish or whether the book was factual enough to be deemed worthy of publication. She was sent an ARC (advanced reader copy) in the hopes of an endorsement for the cover.

Random House was committed. It had paid an advance, edited the book, designed the cover and sold it to booksellers by the time the ARC was sent to her. That is how a publishing timeline works. The text had been set in type already, or there would not have even been an ARC yet. The investments had all been made.

Random House had already decided whether the book was worthy of publication on the basis of style or whatever else might qualify under critiques like "trashy" or "literary" or even "historically accurate." They did not need Dr. Spellberg to advise them on that part of their job and it was too late in the process for them to request it of her. Since Dr. Spellberg has a book undergoing the same timeline, she knew this.

Dr. Spellberg says in her letter to the WSJ today that she merely critiqued. Hardly. She played the trump card of potential violence to get her way and to sidetrack this book.

She did not care for the book’s style or content? Fine. She should have declined to endorse and left it at that, and saved her true critique for reviews once it was published. But she did not want it published, so she pulled out the stops.

She continues to speak of the book presenting the history of Islam incorrectly, but she has not in any way itemized incorrect facts. The bottom line seems to be that she does not care for the author’s interpretation and presentation of history because it does not fit with her own view of how it should be seen. It does not, in her opinion, get history "right"--an odd concept coming from a professional historian. She deems it too trashy, not literary enough for such an important subject in the least. Or, I suspect, at most.

So now we are going to have people stopping the presses, speaking darkly of potential violence, marshalling intimidation tactics, based on dislike of an author’s vision and style?

And we will have [various commentators] basically saying "don’t get your knickers in a twist over this because the book is not well written and looks to me to be a bodice-ripper and popular fiction is less worthy of protection. Now if it were to MY literary taste, THEN you should have some concerns."

. . . And that, ultimately, is the real issue, isn't it?

It is the whole matter of how far a society will go in, as the title of a certain book I own says, Defending the Undefendable.

Are Americans willing to defend the principle of freedom of speech--which, obviously, only needs a real defense when the speech involved is offensive to some person (or group of persons) or another and not when it is wholly uncontroversial-- . . . or are we unwilling to defend it?
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